OCD is primarily associated with anxiety and high levels of distress, but it can also lead to confusion about one’s emotions. A large part of OCD is experiencing intrusive thoughts, which can feel extremely overwhelming and confusing.
Intense fear and uncertainty can trigger overwhelming emotional responses—not only can one’s emotions become hard to tolerate, but it can also be difficult to make sense of them, as they may be far different from how one usually feels.
Since the intensity of OCD symptoms varies widely from time to time, it’s not uncommon for symptoms to “spike” unexpectedly, leaving people in search of answers. While there’s no way to avoid intense OCD episodes entirely, it can be important to prepare for when they occur and learn to manage them over time.
Compulsions are not an effective way to manage emotions
In an effort to alleviate discomfort caused by intrusive thoughts, feelings, and urges, people with OCD engage in various behaviors—mental and physical—in an attempt to cope with the ensuing emotions. Unfortunately, these compulsions only further contribute to the distressing emotions and confusion that intrusive triggers cause. By rushing to respond with compulsive behaviors, people avoid the underlying emotional experience which they see as intolerable.
We know that people with OCD often display distress intolerance. This means that they do not believe that they can tolerate feelings of discomfort or anxiety. Although no one actually enjoys feeling discomfort or anxiety, they typically recognize their ability to experience it and move through it. However, people with OCD tend to believe that they can’t handle uncomfortable feelings, and avoid them at all costs. That’s one reason why they turn to compulsions as a distraction from really tough emotional experiences.
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Confusion over emotions can be further complicated when someone with OCD is also diagnosed with co-occurring mental health conditions, such as generalized anxiety or depression, which can significantly impact emotional experiences. They may struggle to differentiate between the symptoms of OCD and other mental health conditions, resorting to coping mechanisms that they believe are healthy, but are actually compulsive.
Strategies to regain control when your emotions are spiking
There are things you can do to get through an emotional spike, but it’s important to remember that every person is unique. OCD can be so nuanced and what works for one may not work for another. Try not to compare your own journey with anyone else’s.
1. Acknowledge your emotions
It may seem simple enough, but this can be much more difficult than one might think. By avoiding uncomfortable emotions or distracting yourself from them, you’re actually giving them more power over you and allowing them to dictate your actions. These behaviors may seem harmless enough at first, but as with all compulsions in OCD, the more you avoid or distract yourself from distressing feelings, the more you’ll feel as if you need to do so in the future. In short order, this can interfere with your life in a major way, as any situation has the potential to trigger discomfort and distress.
Instead, by first acknowledging your emotions, you can build a foundation for yourself to manage how they affect your life. Acknowledging that your uncomfortable feelings exist will give you the opportunity to understand why they happen and sit with them as they pass. Then, when OCD spikes in the future, you’ll know that you are able to handle the experience.
When you are caught up in the past, it’s easy to get consumed by feelings of guilt or regret. Likewise, when you constantly leap toward the future, you can easily get swept away with fears and worries. When you focus your thoughts in the current moment, however, you can experience it for what it is, understand what you’re experiencing, and remain in better control. You can take what comes as it comes.
Staying grounded involves focusing on the moment in front of you and engaging your senses. Observe where you are. Allow yourself to be wholly present. Take a deep breath. Look around you—what do you see? Listen closely—what do you hear? Engage your taste–I often have a box of tic-tacs on hand for this very purpose. Alert your senses to the present moment, however it presents itself to you. Grounding techniques like these can help to alleviate the emotional spike caused by intrusive thoughts, providing you with some separation from intense feelings without avoiding them.
3. Prioritize self-care
Self-care, in its most basic form, is treating yourself kindly. It is responding to yourself as you would for someone else whom you love and care for deeply. It is giving yourself the same kind of love and forgiveness that you so readily are willing to give to others who are suffering.
Managing emotional spikes can be easier when you are regularly taking care of your needs. Find activities that bring you peace, joy, relaxation, a sense of purpose, and fulfillment. Everyone is different—for some it may look like spending time in nature, for others it may involve exercise, and some may feel nourished by creative hobbies.
4. Get support
The importance of a supportive community cannot be overstated. Perhaps you have people close to you whom you trust and who can act as a healthy support system. Maybe friends or family are nearby for you to confide in, or perhaps you have found belonging in an online community. Even a beloved pet can provide much-needed companionship when you’re in the throes of OCD.
Whatever sources of support are available to you can help tremendously as you maneuver the emotional highs and lows of an OCD spike. Having others who can empathize with your experiences and provide validation, rather than compulsive reassurance, is important.
5. Get effective treatment
Specialty-trained, qualified, and licensed OCD specialists can help you manage these emotional spikes and confusion that OCD tries to bring. A successful exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapist will guide, support, and motivate you. They will not only show you empathy and compassion, but more importantly, guide you to show yourself these things. If you have any questions about starting ERP therapy or need more information about treatment, please don’t hesitate to book a free 15-minute call with our care team.
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When dealing with emotional spikes surrounding intrusive thoughts, images, or urges, remember to accept that these thoughts are there, and they don’t need to have meaning. Remain mindful and ground yourself to the moment. Seek support. Practice self-compassion. You can regain control of your emotions and recognize that you can tolerate really hard emotions.